Are Sherlock Holmes characters and story elements copyrighted? Reply

A lawsuit over the FREE USE of the Sherlock Holmes characters and story elements prompted the US District Court in the Northern District of Illinoisdollar (2) to do some detective work into the famous, fictional detective to determine whether Holmes, other characters and story elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and stories had entered into the public domain.

The lawsuit, Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, raises two interesting copyright questions:  1) what are the copyrightable elements of a literary work; and 2) when do copyrightable elements of a literary work enter the public domain and become available for free public use.

As a bit of background info, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authored four novels and 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and published these in the US over a span of 30 years (from 1890 – 1926). As one might expect, new characters and plot elements were introduced in the novels and short stories over time.  Hint: these details are critical to the court’s analysis of the copyright questions raised in the case.

QUESTION 1: Copyrightable Elements of a Literary Work.  The court held that copyright protection extends to characters, character traits, and storyline because these are copyrightable “increments of expression.”  By contrast, the court reiterated a general tenant of US copyright law that “ideas, plots, dramatic situations and events” are not elements in a literary work that are protected by copyright.

QUESTION 2: When Do Copyrightable Elements of Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Literary Works Enter the Public Domain and Become Available For Free Public Use?  The short answer is that his works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.  Since Sir Author Conan Doyle published works featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson both before and after 1923, the court analyzed the publication dates of the works and the introduction of various copyrightable “increments of expression” (including characters, character traits and storyline) to determine which were published pre-1923 and post-1923.  Those published pre-1923 are in the public domain and those published post-1923 are still protected by copyright.

Interestingly, some of the post-1923 characters, character traits and storylines that were at issue in the lawsuit and held by the court to be still protected by copyright are: 1) Dr. Watson’s second wife (introduced in 1924); 2) Dr Watson’s background as an athlete (introduced in 1924); 3) and Sherlock Holmes’ retirement from his detective agency (introduced in 1926).

Only 10 of Sir Author Conan Doyle’s works featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were published in the US post-1923 and are still covered by copyright protection.  The 50 earlier works are in the public domain, which means that “increments of expression” including characters, character traits and storyline (most notably Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson) are available for the public to use for free without a license.

BY: Vanessa Kaster, Esq., LL.M.

For personalized legal services you are welcome to contact me at vk@kasterlegal.com

This summary is based on the Memorandum Opinion and Order issued by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in a ruling on the plaintiff, Klinger’s, motion for summary judgment against the Conan Doyle Estate.   See also: earlier blog posts on the topic of “public domain,” https://iplegalfreebies.wordpress.com/category/public-domain/; other copyright and public domain resources, http://www.copyright.gov, http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm, http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/; @iplegalfreebies and www.kasterlegal.com.

Copying another artist’s work into a New Medium can violate copyright 2

The idea behind a piece of artwork is not protected by copyright.  However, a near replica of an artist’s work in different medium can be a copyright violation if the new work closely copies a copyright protected work.  What this means is that being inspired by an idea of another contemporary artist to recreate your own artwork from scratch is…100% legit.  For example, if a famous photograph of the pyramids inspires you to fly to Egypt and try to recreate the exact same photo to display and sell in a gallery… there is no copyright violation.  However, it is different if you use a copy of a famous photograph of a pyramid to paint a replica of the photograph.  Painting a copy of a photograph changes the medium of the artwork, but it can often still be a copyright violation of the copied work.

Here are a few examples of instances when copying someone else’s artwork into a new medium could be a copyright violation of the original work:

  • Photographing a sculpture… for use on a postage stamp
  • Making a painting of another artist’s photograph… to display in a gallery show
  • Making a campaign poster out of another artist’s photograph… to sell and raise money
  • Making a sculpture of another artist’s photograph of a sad kid in a costume… to display and sell
  • Recreating another artist’s painting in peanut butter and jelly and photographing the PB&J  rendition… to display and sell

Obviously, there are many unique facts and factors to consider in each case… and many of these types of challenges settle before a court issues a final ruling.  However by the time the parties begin negotiating a settlement, the stakes are higher and the alleged infringer generally ends up paying much more than it would have cost to secure a license at the outset.

The solution is to get a license from the original artist to make a derivative work.  (Trying to deny or cover-up your source material is often unsuccessful and can cost a lot more $$ in the end.)

BY: Vanessa Kaster, Esq., LL.M.

For personalized legal services you are welcome to contact me at vk@kasterlegal.com.

Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992)( The infringers fair use defense was denied); Gaylord v. United States, 595 F.3d 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2010); Fairey v Associated Press; alleged infringement between A.Brown and littlewhitehead; alleged infringement between Burdeny and Leong; NY Times article 9/28/11, questioning originality of Dylan paintings at the Gagosian; @iplegalfreebies and www.kasterlegal.com.